A day after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, staff for Donald Trump prepared a statement for him to read to the nation, reassuring a rattled country that an orderly transition was now underway to the victor of the November 2020 election, Joe Biden.
“This election is now over. Congress has certified the results,” Trump was to tell Americans.
But he couldn’t do it.
“I don’t want to say the election is over,” Trump said as he recorded the statement on Jan. 7. “I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election is over.”
Outtakes of the taping played Thursday evening by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol revealed the former president’s frustration and pique at struggling through his script. He clenched his jaw. He slammed his right palm on the lectern. His daughter Ivanka Trump coached him from the sidelines.
The release of the footage marked a rare, and previously unreported, window into Trump’s actions in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack.
The Capitol had been besieged for the first time since the British torched Washington in 1814, and the president of the United States was struggling with something else: he really, truly did not want to say anything bad about the people who did it.
Not the afternoon before, when rioters armed with batons, flagpoles and bear spray were still smashing through the halls of government, hunting down his own vice president. And not that day either, as custodians cleaned up the trash and blood left behind in the cleared Capitol.
Under pressure from aides, Trump did tell the rioters to “go home in peace” in a video the White House tweeted at 4:17 p.m. on Jan. 6. In the final version of the video released on Jan. 7, he said too that the mob had “defiled the seat of American democracy” and lawbreakers would “pay.”
But in its eighth public hearing Thursday evening, the House committee revealed new behind-the-scenes details of how a president who had made feeding the passions of his most fervent supporters his top priority in office stubbornly resisted chiding them, even when they embarked on violence in his name. Even his mild critique of the crowd was grudging and came only after hours of resistance.
Even before Jan. 6, Trump had refused entreaties from staff to condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence whose members ultimately were central to the attack on Capitol. “He wouldn’t denounce the Proud Boys because they were fighting for him. If someone was fighting for him, no matter how heinous the people, he wouldn’t denounce them,” former Trump press secretary Stephanie Grisham told The Washington Post in an interview.
The committee Thursday showed that Trump was informed moments after returning from delivering a speech on the Ellipse that his supporters were breaking down barriers and attempting to breach the building but remained silent for hours, despite pleas to publicly condemn the violence from his staffers, Republicans in Congress and even his own family.
Instead of calling off the mob, at 2:24 p.m., Trump put a new target on his vice president’s back, tweeting that Mike Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country,” adding “USA demands the truth!”
At 2:38 p.m., Trump tweeted “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
But this tweet, too, included no condemnation of violence, and it’s exhortation to “stay peaceful” was a lie – rioters were at that moment engaged in hand-to-hand combat with police.
Even so, press aide Sarah Matthews testified that she was told by her boss, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, that Trump didn’t want to include the word “peaceful” at all.
“She looked directly at me and in a hushed tone, shared with me that the president did not want to include any sort of mention of peace in that tweet and that it took some convincing on their part,” Matthews testified.
Only after Ivanka Trump suggested the phrase “stay peaceful” did Matthews say she was told Trump agreed.
Trump finally recorded that included a line urging rioters to go home at 4:03 p.m. The committee revealed for the first time Thursday that his staff prepared remarks for him for this video as well.
“I’m asking you to leave the capital region NOW and go home in a peaceful manner,” read the remarks, a document the committee showed had been stamped, “THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN.”
But when Trump stood before the camera in the White House Rose Garden, he ignored the prepared remarks and spoke “off the cuff,” testified aide Nicholas Luna.
Trump’s impromptu remarks instead stressed the falsehood that the election had been stolen. “I know your pain. I know you’re hurt,” Trump said, telling the rioters: “We love you. You’re very special,” he told the rioters.
According to committee members, Trump’s staff wanted him to deliver another statement early on the morning of Jan. 7. But Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said Trump refused for hours, only agreeing to record the remarks that evening, amid concerns from his allies that members of his cabinet could attempt to invoke the 25th amendment to the Constitution and remove him from office.
Outtakes played by the committee show Trump repeatedly tripped over his words, editing the remarks in real time and complaining about its language. “Okay, I’ll do this. I’m going to do this. Let’s go,” he said at one point in exasperation.
The experience of the video was familiar to John Kelly, who served as Trump’s chief of staff from 2017 to 2019. In an interview, Kelly recalled that aides would often try to get Trump to record a video when delivering a statement they knew he was hesitant to give.
“We would try and get him to either stay on the teleprompter or, better, to record it. He hated that,” he said. With video, he said, “we could then cut and paste it.”
Likewise, Grisham said Trump had certain tells when forced to deliver a statement he opposed.
“He would stop, wave his hands, question why we were doing it. He’d want to take something out. He’d ask who wrote it,” she said. “He’d get exasperated.”
In the lowest moments of presidency, Trump often resisted mouthing the words his aides believed could make a politically treacherous moment slightly less awful. His resistance was always stiffest when advisers pushed him to say anything that might suggest he or his supporters – whom he viewed as an extension of himself – had done anything wrong.
In 2017, when a woman was killed protesting neo-Nazis and white supremacists as they rallied against the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump resisted calls to criticize the marchers without caveats. In one news conference, he said he condemned violence – but undercut the sentiment by blaming the violence “on many sides.”
A coterie of White House aides then wrote a new speech for Trump, this one declaring that “racism is evil” and promising that anyone who broke the law in Charlottesville would be held to account. After initially agreeing to give the speech, Trump grew angry, stalked off the stage and watched TV coverage from White House doctor Ronnie Jackson’s office, according to a person who witnessed the incident. “He wasn’t unwilling to give the speech, but he wasn’t fully bought in and was scribbling on the paper until the final minutes. You could tell. He was reluctant,” said a former aide with direct knowledge of the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the private scene.
Trump’s anger grew when he saw that Fox News covered the reaction as an apology and course correction, even though he was praised by numerous aides, including Treasury Secretary Gary Cohn and adviser Hope Hicks.
“He was absolutely furious after he’d done the second one on Charlottesville because he believed he’d shown weakness,” Kelly said. “In his mind, he’s a tough guy.”
Later that night, he erupted on aides who had been involved in the drafting of the speech. “That was one of the worst speeches I’ve ever given,” he said, according to a person who witnessed the eruption. “That was a terrible decision. I looked weak! I seemed weak!”
The next day, he went back to Trump Tower and doubled down on his original speech, delivering the memorable remark: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Similarly, after the “Access Hollywood” tape leaked during the 2016 campaign, featuring Trump lewdly describing assaulting women, he was reluctant to give a full apology. Soon after releasing a video in which he said, “I was wrong, and I apologize,” Trump began telling aides that maybe the tape was somehow fabricated and it wasn’t even him on tape, former aides said.
“He never wanted to look weak, or get blamed for anything. In his mind, anything that would make him look weak, he would just ignore or deny or lie about,” Grisham said.
On Jan. 9, two Trump campaign aides exchanged text messages about their anger that Trump had not in any way acknowledged a Capitol police officer who died of a stroke after battling rioters. In a message displayed by the committee, communications director Tim Murtaugh explained Trump’s actions.
“You know what this is, of course,” Murtaugh wrote. “If he acknowledged the dead cop, he’d be implicitly faulting the mob. And he won’t do that because they’re his people . . . No way he acknowledges something that could ultimately be called his fault. No way.”